Entrepreneurs in austerity | Sound and Music presents

- 2 July 2014

Sound and Music’s chief executive Susanna Eastburn looks at how composers are making new connections with audiences

Susanna Eastburn: ‘It is in the artist-led activity that some of today’s most interesting artistic experiences are being created © Richard Lea-Hair

Susanna Eastburn:
‘It is in the artist-led activity that some of today’s most interesting artistic experiences are being created.
© Richard Lea-Hair

Since Sound and Music relaunched its programme in April 2013, what we rather humbly call our Composer-Curator Programme has grown to exemplify what we now stand for. It does what it says on the tin: financial and light-touch practical support for composers of any genre who are presenting or producing their own and their peers’ work.

We select participants through an open call and transparent selection process, asking for a short description of what they want to do, and what support they think they need from us. Since its inception we have supported more than 15 composers in this way to deliver a range of projects including ensemble tours, festivals, new opera and events that defy description. The range of work covered is incredibly broad and is often characterised by the bringing together of very different styles and genres in a seductive cocktail.

It came about because we noticed an increase in the number of composers across the country setting up their own companies and producing their own events, often in unusual spaces and contexts. Nonclassical is probably the best known, but there are dozens more: Size Zero Opera, the (actually very lovable) Bastard Assignments, Soundkitchen in Birmingham, Filthy Lucre, Töne Festival, the Riot Ensemble, Workers Union, Audiograft, Sounds of the Engine House, Multi-Story, ACM Ensemble and ddmmyy in Manchester &#8210 the list goes on.

What’s behind this growing trend? Presumably not a desire to fill in funding applications and increase administrative workload. The answers tend to follow similar themes: ‘There isn’t enough work around unless you’re really established’; ‘I want to have more control of where and how my work is presented’; ‘I think there are new ways to present work and reach audiences’; ‘I want to work with my peers as an equal’.

It’s not a new concept, of course &#8210 examples from the last century such as Benjamin Britten in Aldeburgh, and Peter Maxwell Davies in Orkney readily come to mind. But the rapid growth in the number of artist-led activities of the last few years is not just a continuation of tradition. It’s a radical response to a critical situation.

Although the most established composers still have a diary full of commissions, the majority don’t and what I hear from many, including some who are very well known and highly regarded, is that paid commissions for new work from professional arts organisations have decreased dramatically over the past five years with many composers increasingly composing new pieces for no fee.

Also, rehearsal and presentation conditions for new work by established organisations are often constrained in terms of forces, duration, time with musicians and above all rehearsals. Budgets are so very tight that this kind of limitation is hard to avoid. But it is not conducive to artistic ambition to be working under such conditions, which directly militate against imaginative experimentation.

Seductive cocktail: Sound and Music in action

Seductive cocktail:
Sound and Music in action

But perhaps the most important point is this: it is in the artist-led activity that some of today’s most interesting artistic experiences are being created, and new connections with audiences made. Many of these events happen outside traditional institutions. I have been to astonishingly adventurous programmes in car parks, community centres, galleries, warehouses, tunnels, clubs, pubs and bars. It makes sense to wear flat shoes since these often involve standing and/or moving around, often with a plastic glass of beer in hand. They also require some stamina from those of us who prefer to be tucked up by 11pm, since they often involve late nights and take place outside city centres.

And people go to them. They attract audiences of a size and nature which many more established organisations would give their eye teeth for. I attend a lot of performances and concerts of various kinds and all too often I know many in the audience. But at these artist-led, grassroots events, many of the audience are half my age and their primary characteristic seems to be curiosity and interest in new things. Such audience engagement is achieved not through laborious audience development strategies. Rather the freshness, artistic curiosity and boldness of the composers leading this work shine through, grabbing the attention of growing numbers of culturally curious, digitally engaged consumers, purely on the merits and innovation of programming and presentation, as well as sparky use of social media.

Since setting it up – and a big shout out here to the Paul Hamlyn Foundation who came on board with funding for a programme which is not only brand new but, as far as we know, unique in the world &#8210 we have received many, many more applications than we are able to support. This is a hugely vibrant and energetic ecology; it needs more investment made available to it so that the creative entrepreneurship at its heart can flourish.

Why is it so important to us? Well, as an organisation which prides itself on putting the composer at the heart of everything we do, we felt we had to respond to this growing swell of activity. It has also led to some of our most memorable events: such as the joyful OhNO festival at Cafe Oto in March, curated and produced by composers Michael Cutting and Joe Snape, whose wit and invention created a programme that spanned Morton Feldman’s The Viola in My Life, free improvisation, a set from Simon Steen Anderson and a brand new work for six dilapidated harmoniums. Who else would have foreseen what a brilliant combination that turned out to be? But above all, it has shown us that in a time when politics as well as economics seem to be lining up against the arts, the passion and creativity of composers and artists can show us new models of connecting with audiences in an authentic, courageous way.

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